The days are getting shorter and the nights colder. Many leaves now mat the forest floor, and the underbrush has wilted away. With the forest partly denuded of its leafy garments, it is easy to spot all the fresh buck sign. It’s almost mystical how the woods are now sprinkled with new rubs and fresh scrapes.
The pre-rut period is a prime time to hunt trophy whitetail. When the rut peaks, bucks are chasing or trailing does all over the place. But right before this time their travel patterns are somewhat predictable. If you can pattern a particular buck and hang your stand in the right spot, I believe your odds of tagging him are better than any other time.
As I sat in my stand perched high in the giant, old white oak, I reflected back on an encounter I had last season with a very tall tined ten-pointer. In fact, that particular buck was sort of a legend in the area and was referred to by the locals as Tall Tines. The memory was still crystal clear. A cold, wet northwest breeze forced me to turn my back towards the direction from which it blew and face the old white oak. It was then, through the branches, that I sported old Tall Tines as he entered the field about 200 yards away. The buck fed in the bean field for a short period, then dropped into the timber on my side of the field. When I lost sight of him, I raised my grunt call to my mouth and released four consecutive throaty tones, “eaa, eaa, eaa, eaa.” No sooner had the last grunt sounded than I spotted the buck approaching from behind.
At this point my mind was racing almost as fast as my heart was beating! Now Tall Tines was less than 12 yards away! However, the jig was up. Like a statue he stood behind the big, old white oak and stared straight ahead. The old white oak was so large I couldn’t possibly reach around it to release an arrow; and even if I could, I was in no position to even move a muscle. He knew something wasn’t right, and I knew it was only a matter of time before he would bolt. After what seemed like an eternity, the buck whirled and ran back in the direction from which he came.
Remembering the encounter gave me goose bumps. I kept thinking about the hunt and wondering what I could have done differently. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I caught movement at the far end of the field. A very large-bodied buck with his neck stretched out and head low to the ground was tailing a couple of yearlings does. When I glassed him I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was Tall Tines! It was too early in the rut for either of the two young does to be receptive to the buck’s advances.
Therefore, on the chance that he would soon become bored with the yearlings, I slammed my rattling horns together and worked them until he stopped and stared back in my direction. The buck’s acknowledgement was my cue to stop rattling and put the antlers away.
At that point all I could do was wait and hope the buck would soon lose interest in the tow seductive yearlings and seek out the antler clashing bucks. Sure enough, 30 minutes later he came right down the tree line, heading in my direction.
Old Tall Tines covered about 80 yards when he dropped down into the hollow and appeared again on the opposite ridge. It was obvious he was planning on circling downwind of my position. In order to maintain my composure I kept repeating in my mind “any minute he’s going to wind me.” The big old buck covered a lot of ground in a short time. He was 10 steps from being downwind of my scent, when he turned and headed in my direction.
Glimpses of fur moving through the vine woven timber revealed that the buck was coming at a fast walk. I was at full draw before he hit the opening, 30 yards away, and after he’d walked a quarter of the way across it, I vocally sounded a deep, loud grunt. As the buck stopped and looked in my direction, I steadied my 30-yard pin a few inches behind his right shoulder and unleashed the menacing, lung ripping rocket. Upon Impact the buck actually did what I could best describe as a handstand flip. He flipped ends and slammed into a tree before crashing to the ground. As soon as the buck hit the ground he was back on his feet. Then, like a bulldozer, he shoved his way through a vine-tangled web of brush before plowing into several trees. Once out of sight I could still follow his direction by the sound of snapping branches and limbs.
Seconds later, there was complete silence. I knew old Tall Tines was down, but I sat quietly for about 15 minutes before going after him. Once on the ground, I didn’t even look for a blood trail. With the excitement that often accompanies anticipation; I stealthily stalked towards where I heard the last crash. I’d only walked about 40 yards when I found my dead buck sprawled in a small foliage covered depression. After thanking God, I let out a rebel yell that I’m sure the coyotes on the next ridge are still talking about. When the realization that my pursuit of Tall Tines was over finally sunk in, I sat down on a log and relived the entire episode. In fact, I sat with the old buck for over an hour before even thinking about moving him.
I’ll never forget the sight of that heavy-horned, tall-tined buck as he stood out in the bean field. Occasionally glistening off his antlers, the golden evening sun was filtering orange streaks of light through the trees and across the field as the buck’s face was partially blurred by a puff of steam leaving his nostrils and meeting the chilled air. The entire panorama was beautiful.
The first state of the rut I refer to as the bulking-up period. This period runs from July and lasts until the second week of October in most parts of North America. During this period deer are putting on body fat they’ll need to carry them through the next three stages of the rut.
Bucks bed very close to the primary food source and seldom travel more than one or two miles during this period. However, when the bucks get a shot of testosterone and the pre-rut period kicks in, bucks cover eight to 10 miles in areas where doe densities are high, and 15 to 20 miles where doe densities are low. Often referred to as the pre-breeding period, the pre-rut is the period just prior to when the majority of does are actually bred.
This period of the rut generally lasts three to four weeks, starting mid-October and ending around the first to second week of November in most of North America.
Buck behavior during the pre-rut period is still as predictable as during the bulking-up period; however, a lot has changed. During the bulking-up period bucks primarily travel from their bedding areas to some food source. During the pre-rut period, however, bucks may still be using the same bedding areas, except now they are more interested in checking out does than in feeding.
This hormonal change is what makes bucks fairly predictable: Locate areas where does congregate and you’ll also locate bucks. I refer to the areas where does congregate as “social hubs.” Again, just as in the bulking-up period, a great place to locate doe family groups is at a prime food source. It seems pretty simple to figure out.
Although a particular buck may frequent the same social hub several times, he won’t use the same trail or arrive at the same time. Some days he may arrive well after dark and other days he may arrive well within legal shooting hours. Just the same, bucks are now covering much more ground during daylight hours, if undisturbed; even a mature buck can be understood during this period.
RATTLING AND GRUNTING
During the pre-rut bucks are establishing breeding rights, making this the best period to clash rattling horns. While I’m usually armed with a set of rattling horns when bow hunting whitetail, unlike many hunters, I grunt and rattle sparingly. I’m of the notion that most mature bucks will circle downwind most of the time when responding to a hunter’s rattling or grunting sequence. This being the case, the majority of hunters never even know they’ve been caught.
I believe a buck may often come in to check things out—long after the hunter that was clashing antlers and blowing a grunt tube has left the timber—only to get a double nostril full of human scent. Such schooling only makes an already cautious animal that much harder to harvest.
A few seasons ago I spotted a nice buck crossing a stubble cornfield approximately 200 yards from my lofty perch which sat back in the timber about 30 yards in from the field’s edge. Since his direction of travel was directing him away from my position, I reached for my rattling antlers and slammed them together loudly.
After only a few seconds of working the antlers, the buck headed my way. As soon as he had turned and started towards me, I hung the antlers on a branch and with an arrow already nocked, I prepared myself for an opportunity. The buck covered about 120 yards before holding-up. Well out of bow range, he stood out in the field and stared into the timber.
Although I was tempted, experience kept me from blowing on the grunt tube or clicking those antlers together again. After a few minutes the buck turned and walked away. Still tempted, I just held tight and watched. The buck walked about 60 yards and bedded in a grassy depression in the middle of the field. Two hours passed when the buck stood up from his bed. With only 30 minutes of legal shooting light left, I wasn’t about to draw attention to myself by grunting or rattling. The buck walked diagonally away from my position, entered the woods and crossed the creek in a spot where the bank was very low and easiest to cross. I thought it was all over, but once he crossed the creek the buck turned back towards me and followed the creek bank to within a 10-yard shot. Upon impact, the solid “thud” confirmed, “less is more.” You see bucks don’t always come in right away. That doesn’t mean they’re not interested, or at least curious. I’m certain, if I would have rattled again when the buck held up or when he rose from his bed, the game would have been over and I would have been the loser.
Once in my stand and comfortable, things resume to normal in the area and I begin my first rattling sequence. I normally start off with three or four soft grunts from my grunt call, wait a couple minutes then follow up by grinding and twisting a pair of rattling antlers together for about 30 seconds, wait 30 seconds and work the antlers together for another 30 seconds. I don’t repeat this session again for at least two hours. I often try to utilize the lay of the land to prevent a responding buck from circling downwind of me. I position my stand a few yards upwind of a river, ledge, steep-walled hollow, wide-open field, etc.
Earlier, during the bulking-up period, rubs were the most essential sign to help predict buck travel. However, during the pre-rut period the frequency of scrape checking increases and scrapes become the most useful in surmising buck travel. Although I rely on scrapes to help me get a handle on buck travel, unless I have a near perfect wind situation I will not hang my stand within bow range of a scrape or scrape line for fear of being winded. You see, bucks often wind check their scrapes from a distance, downwind. Hence, if a hunter’s stand location is near a fresh scrape, there’s a fair chance a buck will catch his scent. With this in mind, when hunting scrapes I will generally set my stand downwind of a location from which a buck is likely to wind check scrapes.
Funnels are number one on my list when considering stand placement during the pre-rut period. A funnel is any natural or unnatural situation along the whitetail’s range that narrows his travel options. Don’t expect a funnel to look like a perfect hourglass with a narrow strip of timber connecting two large bodies of timber. If you fund such a situation, that’s great, but more often funnels can be very subtle. Similar to people, deer prefer taking the easy route. For this reason, a low area where deer can cross a high-banked creek often makes a great funnel situation. A brushy fence line crossing a field and connecting two bodies of timber, a low spot along a long stretch of fence line, a strip of land between two bodies of water, a bench along a hillside, higher ground in a swamp, or a saddle running between two higher points; the list of possible funnel situations is infinite. There are plenty of funnel situations right where you hunt and the best place to start looking for them is on an aerial map of the area.
Since this period is just before does begin to come into estrus, bucks are on the prowl traveling between doe family bedding areas. I try to locate any funnel situation connecting bedding areas. When placing a stand in a funnel or travel corridor near a bedding area, it’s important that you’re able to access your stand as discreetly as possible. No matter how good a stand location seems, if it cannot be approached without spooking deer, it’s a bad spot.
Next, just like during the bulking up period, I look for funnels connecting bedding areas to primary feeding areas. Keep in mind, although bucks are more interested in does than they are in food, does still desire and require food. Consequently, bucks will trail does through these connecting funnels.
Another great stand location during the pre-rut or any other time of the season for that matter is where several trails either join or run close together. Let’s face it; hunting mature bucks, like anything else, is largely based on percentages. In other words, if you’re overlooking four deer trails that run between two bedding areas the odds of getting a chance to tag a mature buck are much better than if you were only watching one trail.
SELECTING THE RIGHT TREE
Very simply, the right tree is the one that affords you the greatest number of shot possibilities with the least chance of being spotted or scented by your quarry. Hence, this is why I feel the best time to scout and prepare stand sites is shortly after the season. After the season you don’t have to worry about disturbing things. The deer will have several months to get over the intrusion. After I’ve located what I feel is a hot area—with wind direction foremost—my first step is to walk back and forth down the trails and through areas deer would walk until I locate the tree most visible from each trail or natural travel corridor. Next, provided the tree is fairly straight and offers enough cover, I hang my stand. Height varies with the terrain and wind conditions, but I usually hang it between 18 and 22 feet. Then from my perch I note what needs to be pruned in order to ensure a good shot at anything within bow range. After trimming is completed, I record in a spiral notebook the best wind directions to hunt that particular stand location. Then I vacate the area and do not return again until a favorable wind welcomes me back next season.
Without a doubt, the pre-rut period is an optimum time to get a crack at a megabuck. This period offers somewhat predictable buck travel with a huge increase in daytime activity over the previous bulking-up period. If you do your homework and you’re willing to invest quite a bit of time on stand, this period can produce a wall-hanger of a lifetime.
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